The UC Irvine women's soccer team, on the heels of its second straight Big West Conference regular-season championship, is closer to the old guard than new kids on the block for this season's NCAA Tournament.
During the NCAA.com's live webcast of the NCAA Tournament pairings Monday, the No. 24-ranked Anteaters (14-4-2) learned they will play host to San Diego (11-7) on Friday at 7 p.m. in the first round.
But before UCI's portion of the bracket was revealed, they were energized by seeing their school listed in graphic breakdowns of some of the tournament's heavy hitters.
UCI was listed as a key win for Stanford, a regional No. 1 seed, prompting a buzz from the assembled UCI players who convened to view the 30-minute show at the student center.
The players later were gratified to be mentioned as the team that eliminated Wake Forest, another No. 1 regional seed, in last year's NCAA second round.
"When we saw our name up there as a key win for Stanford, it was exciting," UCI senior defensive midfielder Judy Christopher said. "It was like, oh, they know who we are. It's exciting to know that we're not just a dark horse, but a team that you need to look out for. We are a good team, a great team, and you can't underestimate us, because we are not going to go easy on you."
UCI proved impossible to overlook last season, when it defeated Arizona State, 2-1, and then-Atlantic Coast Conference champion Wake Forest, 2-0, in the first and second rounds, respectively, both at home.
UCI was eliminated by Washington, 1-0, in double overtime in the Sweet 16 to finish 19-3-2 and put the program on the map.
UCI repeated as regular-season conference champion, but for the second straight year lost to Long Beach State at home in the final of the Big West Tournament.
The loss to the 49ers, a 1-0 verdict on Sunday, meant UCI had to earn an at-large berth. But with its national ranking and its strong RPI (No. 18), it made the 64-team field.
The opener against USD is a rematch of a Sept. 25 nonconference meeting that the Anteaters won, 3-2, at USD. The Toreros enter on a three-game winning streak, having won four of their last five.
UCI had won seven straight and had four consecutive shutouts before falling Sunday.
"It's a lot more familiar this year," Juniper said of his team's second straight NCAA Tournament. "Last year, I remember feeling very different. We'd written a brand new page in history this time last year. But we've been here and everyone knows we can compete at this level."
The Anteaters have 19 players back from last year's NCAA Tournament roster, including All-American CoCo Goodson, a senior defender.
Sophomore forward Natalia Ledezma leads the newcomers, having transferred from UCLA. She leads the team in goals (12), assists (eight) and points (32). She has three game-winning goals and one hat trick to her credit.
Senior forward Lexi Kopf has 11 goals and one assist. Ledezma and Kopf (who has five game-winners) represent more than 62% of the Anteaters' scoring attack.
Freshman Cami Privett had five goals and four assists and a pair of game-winners. She had two goals, including the game-winner, in UCI's win at USD.
Freshman goalie Jennifer Randazzo has six of her team's eight shutouts.
Additional UCI standouts include junior defender Sarah Devine, senior defender Amanda Hardeman, and junior midfielders Dana Sanderlin and Mar Rodriguez.
USD, coached for the ninth season by Ada Greenwood, is paced by senior forward Stephanie Ochs (eight goals and 11 assists) and senior goalkeeper Courtney Parsons (six shutouts).
Juniper and Christopher said there is a healthy rivalry between the two programs.
"I think if there's anyone our team can get up for besides Long Beach, it's San Diego," Christopher said. "Last time we played them, it was a really close game … I think it will be fun to play them again on our field and beat them."
If victorious, UCI would advance to the second round set for next weekend.
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